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Bangkok - skyscrapers, contrasts and iguanas

This year, between March and April, I was on tour in Asia with my pianist, Valentina Vargiu (Duo Aspera). We have visited and performed in 8 countries in 4 weeks: Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Japan, South Korea and China. In the next weeks my blog posts will be dedicated to this overwhelming experience intertwined with some tips, advices and errors I did that you can easily avoid. So let’s start off with the first city we’ve visited – Bangkok.

It was the first time I was taking an intercontinental flight and the day of the departure seemed unreal, I kept on thinking: “Am I really doing this? Am I really going to Thailand?” These thoughts stopped only when I was on the plane. We flew to Bangkok from Vienna with Thai Airways. The price was reasonable (380 Euros one-way), but you can trust me when I say it was the best flight I ever took in my life! The seats were comfortable with lots of space between them, the food was great, the choice of entertainment was huge, the flight attendants were super welcoming and courteous, and the bathroom was clean and had even a cologne for the use of the passengers. The best part was that the flight was not full so you could lie down on three seats and sleep all the way to Bangkok, a 10-hour flight.

When we set foot off the plane at 5 AM local time the difference between Vienna and our destination was more than evident - “The HEAT!! The HUMIDITY!!”. We went on to the passport control. Needless to say, but it is better to remind it, check the entry requirements to the country of your destination and whether you need a visa or not! As an Italian citizen Valentina required only her passport, she received a stamp and went through. As a Romanian citizen, I needed a visa, which, luckily, could be done upon arrival. So here are the first tips:

Tip #1: check well in advance the entry requirements for the country of your destination. Normally the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of your country has a page dedicated to the topic. If you need a visa, make sure to apply for it well in advance. If you only need to fill in a form and bring it with you, do so. It is highly probable that you will not find the needed form easily upon arrival at your destination. Also bring some spare passport size photos with you, you might need them.

Tip #2: bring some cash with you. The visa costs around 2000 Thai Baht (around 50 Euros) and you have to pay for it on the spot, no cards are accepted. So bring along around 100 Euros, there are currency exchange offices but no ATM’s.

Here is the story behind the second tip: I did not manage to take some cash off my card before leaving Vienna thinking that an international airport in Bangkok will be full of ATM’s. Therefore, I had only about 40 Euros with me. When I was told that there was an ATM on the second floor of the airport and was given 3 different directions from 3 different people working at the airport I decided to reach Valentina before she passed the controls and to borrow 50 Euros from her.

She was already with our luggage waiting for me, while I did not even start the visa process… Obviously, I was not allowed to go into the luggage claim area without a visa, so the security staff woman decided to help me and went to find Valentina to tell her that I needed help. Solution found, all should be well… but the security woman went around telling every European-looking woman she saw that her husband was looking for her! When 5 of them told her with confused faces that they had no idea who I was she let me pass, holding my passport with her.

Mission accomplished, I got the money, exchanged the Euros to Thai Baht and went to get the visa. The queue was so long that the monitor put in place where I was said “60 minutes until your turn”. Luckily, a woman approached me and said that if I had all the necessary documents, the money and the application form I could go into the fast line with an extra 5 Euros. I did so and in 20 minutes I had my visa and was on my way out of the airport.

This is exactly how the two queues looked like.

The air outside, at 6 AM, was even more hot and humid! We went to the taxi area and took a ticket with the number of our driver. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak a word of English and the car was too small, so we could not explain to him where we needed to go. The second taxi driver spoke a bit more English than the first one so we got in. Here are the next tips:

Tip #3: Before going to a country get an idea of the weather there. I used Accuweather, which was quite useful in understanding what the temperatures would be like in the next 3 weeks.

Tip #4: prepare an extra 10 Euros in case there is a long line for the visa process. It is totally worth skipping the long line.

Tip #5: print the name of your hotel and the address where you have to go (or have it on your smartphone). This way the driver will know where to take you in case he does not understand English very well

The trip to the hotel lasted about an hour and a half, but the taxi was quite cheap (around 20 Euros). On the way to the hotel I got to see how vast the city really was. Areas with skyscrapers would come out of the smog and then disappear again as soon as the car passed into another area. The traffic was insane and one could see the air pollution and feel its touch on the skin. We got to the hotel and as soon as we checked-in I went on the roof to take a picture of the city from above.

The next thing to do was sleep and cope with the jetlag, trying to adapt to the new time zone. Here is a helpful article about dealing with jetlags.

In the evening we went to eat local food at a very nice restaurant called Mango Tree, with great Pad Thai, and other local dishes. The restaurant also had a group of musicians playing traditional Thai music on traditional instruments. A magical atmosphere. At night, the streets of Bangkok become alive with food stands, parties, people, and many massage parlors.

Our two concerts were in two different districts of Bangkok. The first one was at a Thai-Chinese International School and the second one at the Assumption University. Here are some photos of the tour.

One of the evenings, we decided to go and see a Buddhist temple that seemed not too far away and definitely a walkable distance from the hotel. Bad idea. What might seem nearby in cities like Vienna, Rome or Milano is a long way in Bangkok. Accidentally we stumbled upon another Buddhist temple right where we ended up walking around. At this point, the evening didn’t go so bad after all.

Tip #6: when going around Bangkok always take a taxi. It is cheap, much easier to get to where you need and makes you save a lot of time on wandering around.

On the last day in Bangkok we checked out of the hotel and decided to get a look at the park nearby, Lumpini Park, before leaving for the airport. It was impossible to cross the street to the park because of the thick traffic. After waiting for 10 minutes on the sidewalk, Valentina said “Ok, now look how it’s done.” She went forward with a hand stretched out showing “stop” to the cars and we managed to cross. Consider it a tip on crossing the street in Bangkok ;)

At the park the air felt suddenly cooler thanks to the lake and the trees. There were not many people around so it was quite relaxing as well. The lake hosted some ducks, swans and a strange head of a reptile floating slightly above the water. At first, I thought it was a snake, but then the head moved towards the shore a 3 meter long iguana came out of the water!

On our way out of the park I was looking at the tall buildings nearby and didn’t notice that something was moving in front of me. When I looked down I jumped and yelled like a little kid, it was another iguana right below me! Valentina was startled as well, but she got scared of my jump rather than of the iguana and the next moment she was bent over laughing.

Tip #7: expect exotic animals to walk around freely in parks and don’t do “birdwatching” like me with iguanas walking around

Tip #8: call the taxi to go to the airport well ahead of time as it takes more than an hour to get from one part of the city to the other

Bangkok is truly a magnificent city destined to become a metropolis with its huge traffic, tall skyscrapers, numerous parks and chaos, but with great food and really gentle, friendly and nice people. It left me with the will to come back for a longer stay at some point. What stuck in my memory was the image of the two extremes, the rich and the poor, living in the same place in the same moment. Walking around the city one could find tall skyscrapers and rich buildings and at the bottom poor people cutting meat, selling fried food, entire families living on the streets, everything spiced up by the spicy smell brought in by the soft breeze, a paradox.

The next post will be about Vietnam, a must see destination.

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